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Genetic Study Highlights Motor Issues in Autism

Emily Singer

Motor problems may be a core feature of autism, a study published in February of 2018 suggests. Scientists, doctors and families have long known that people with autism often have difficulty acquiring motor skills. But the new study highlights how common such problems are. The findings suggest that motor challenges are more frequent in autism than intellectual disability is.

The study is described in depth in a news article from Spectrum, an independent news site funded by the Simons Foundation, SPARK’s parent organization. “People should pay more attention, when making the diagnosis [of autism], to look carefully at the kids’ physical disabilities,” lead researcher Michael Wigler, professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, told Spectrum.

Researchers studied families enrolled in the Simons Simplex Collection (SSC), a research project that focuses on families in which one child has autism and the parents and siblings are unaffected. The team used parent questionnaires to assess motor skills, asking about such things as the age when a child began to walk.

Researchers also looked for spontaneous genetic changes — ones that occur in the child but not the parents. They classified a genetic change as severe if it was related to certain autism-linked genes. According to Spectrum, the most severe mutations were linked to both intellectual disability and motor deficits. Less severe mutations were more likely to be linked to motor deficits but not intelligence.

The findings may have implications for assessing condition. Motor deficits are easier to quantify than social skills and may appear at a younger age. Going forward, tracking these skills might provide an effective way to measure the severity of autism.